Friday, June 18, 2010

Cities Part 2: Portland

I love cities. So, a few months ago I started a series of posts on the various cities that my work takes me to. This week, I returned to one of my favorite cities in the country. Really, only Seattle, New York and San Francisco come close to Portland in the contest form my favorite US cities.

Unlike most cities, the Portland experience begins with getting there. The 1 hour and 23 minute flight, along the I-5 corridor, from Sacramento to the Pacific North West is one of the most is one of the most interesting flights in our nation. It is likely the most interesting as a ratio of intrigue to length. You definitely want a window seat.

There are two things that strike you as you fly north into the Pacific Northwest. The first is the clear cuts. The patchy vacancies of the wooded slopes tells a thousand tales of our collective appetites. [1]

But the real highlight of the areal approach to Portland is the Cascade Range. The cascades are unlike any other mountain range in the United States. They are benignly disguised as their more innocuous brethren but their solitary nature betrays a more menacing reality. Unlike the great communal mountains of bygone orogeneys in the central and eastern US (done growing and now, like most of us, experiencing the slow but relentless tug of entropy an gravity) the Cascades stand alone. These solitary frosted peaks loom ominously as signposts of volcanic power along I-5. It is as if, like Lewis’ inhabitants of Hell, their isolation is a function of their wrath.[2] We call them ‘dormant’ but that is a polite way of saying ‘not currently exploding’.[3]

The incredible experience of flying through the Cascades is that peaks that look so solitary from the ground line up like single file soldiers keeping ominous watch into the horizon. At one point you can see uncannily symmetrical and identical peaks[4] lining up like disciplined sentinels, successively monitoring our northward approach.

Mount Hood is the soldier Portland’s assigned soldier.[5] It seems more sinister in that it is only periodically visible (on Portland’s notoriously infrequent clear days).[6] But despite their digression, there is no major environmental hazard that is more visually ubiquitous. The northwest lives with its risk.

Portland’s highlight is the Waterfront. If Portland is a city that lives openly with its hazards, it is also a city that enjoys connection to its great river. There are walking/biking paths along both sides of the waterfront that makes you actually want to run.

They also claim the biggest bookstore in the country: Powells. Now this is cool enough to warrant checking out in its own right. You may not find a bigger fan of than me[7] but I do miss the many hours Amanda and I would spend on date nights in Madison Wisconsin wandering the dusty shelves of the town’s many book stores search of that rare gem. But Powells has been on my radar since it was practically a character in Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.
I ate at a couple of fun places like The Oyster Bar, which is over 100 years old.[8] I also finally made it to Voodoo Doughnuts. Voodoo donuts is home to some of the most original raised dough concoctions you will ever encounter. They include the maple bacon bar[9], m&m, tang, coco pufff and Captain Crunch[10] covered doughnut, doughnuts that resemble lit joints and a wide array of creative variations of the doughnut theme.[11] One of the odd things about V[12] is that you can get served in a relatively timely manner in the morning, but in the evening, forget about it…the line snakes down the block.
I got them for the class I was teaching on Thursday, the day I started with a theoretically difficult two hour lecture.

But, in my opinion, the highlight of the Portland food scene is ‘the carts.’ Along the outer edge of most downtown parking lots, people have parked converted wagons, vans, campers or tents and sell a huge variety of different foods. Overhead is low, so variety is high and it gets the city out of the office and onto the beautiful streets at lunch time.

I think one of the real attractions of Portland is that it manages to feel simultaneously small and cosmopolitan. You can walk the whole downtown in an hour and feel relatively safe at night, but it seems to bustle with culture and opportunity.

I think my least favorite thing about Portland is the uncanny density of strip clubs. I didn’t count, but the strip club/acre statistic has to be up there with any downtown in America.
Portland traffic is notorious…but it is really commuting traffic that is bad. There is surprisingly light traffic downtown for such a vibrant town. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. The downtown traffic is comparable to a depressed rust belt city…but the downtown itself is buzzing with activity. I think the answer to this riddle is public transportation, walking and biking as Portland is perennially rated highly in each category.

As has become my custom on business trip I brought one book to read (John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies) and one to listen to as I explore the city (Marylyn Robinson’s Home). By some strange coincidence or by some unsettling commentary on my literary preferences, both these books are period pieces about Presbyterian ministers and their deeply damaged children.

My last evening in town I took the light rail to the park.[13] Not like a standard urban park, more like a stand of well maintained woods on the edge of the city. Instead of the well maintained and obviously manicured lawns of the parks in San Francisco, Saint Louis or NYC, Portland’s Park appears to be a bonified wood managed for the outdoor enjoyments of its inhabitants. The number of runners and cyclists I saw here provided a hint to the dilemma I articulated in a mid-week facebook status:
Stanford Gibson thinks Portalnd is a magical place. They put bacon on their doughnuts and their sausages and still remain mysteriously thin.

I got out early on Friday and returned to the park to check out the zoo. The zoo was unremarkable, but its grounds were. It was built into the wooded hill of this great park, maintaining most of the towering trees, creating the illusion of a kind of wild otherness despite the teeming humanity.
One other thing I liked about this park was the subway station. You have to take an elevator down 250 feet from the park to the platform. There, on the platform (which is new, bright and clean) they display one of the borings extracted to explore the subsurface for subway construction. It is incredibly well done. 250 feet of 3” diameter baring cores were displayed in a horizontal acrylic tube. Each facies change was identified, dated and correlated with the palohistory of the region. There was ash and lava[14] and glacial silt and outwash from the Missoula flood[15]. Now, I know I enjoyed this more than most, but what a great opportunity to expand the pedagogical value of the museum stop for the park by providing something really interesting and subway related to help people usefully pass the time they spend waiting for the train.

Next Stop: Las Vegas
This post was prepared while listening to The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists[16]
[1] I often wonder if there isn’t a substantial upside to well managed logging from a climate change perspective. In the classic global carbon budgets (the ones that demonstrate that there is a 4Pg surplus of carbon going into the atmosphere over historical levels) there is the curious phenomenon of ‘the missing Carbon’. The global Carbon balance does not balance. There is one Pg that is unaccounted for. Some speculate that it is in the wood that is sequestered in buildings around the world (wood that would have otherwise released its carbon into the atmosphere during the decay process). In a sense, buildings are the carbon swamps of our era.
Planting trees does not provide Carbon mitigation in perpetuity. There is an early benefit as carbon is fixed, but photosynthesis is mirrored by an exact reverse process that releases the Carbon as the trees die and decay. The replacement vegetation fixes approximately the same amount of Carbon, meaning that once an acre has mature trees it has maximized its carbon fixation capabilities. And while we are talking about atmospheric Carbon loads, few people realize that the carbon budgets identify soil disturbance from agriculture as an equal contributor as fossil fuel use. But, I digress.
[2] Lewis depicts hell in The Great Divorce as a vast suburban sprawl because the inhabitants of hell can not stand each other and want to be as spread out as possible, leaving an ever growing, sparsely populated, decaying urban core. My wife’s response to Lewis’ hell (before he revealed what it was) was ‘this place sounds like Buffalo.’
[3] The latent destruction these quiet cones represent is particularly real to me since most of my trips to Portland have dealt with the aftermath of Mount Saint Helens
[4] Well, identical except this one: Crater Lake.
[5] The video game that historically consumed the largest chunk of my time was the original SIM CITY. SIM CITY was a great urban planning game but once you got board planning your own cities, they had a dozen or so ‘scenarios’ in which SIM models of actual cities experienced disasters and your job was to re-plan the city in the aftermath. It included a dirty bomb in NYC and an alien invasion in some other town. But the most memorable was Portland. In the first time step of the Portland Scenario, a brand new volcano formed in the middle of the city and after the emergency management stage of the game, you had to re-plan the city around the volcano.
[6] Actually, Hood is sleepier than the peak overlooking Seattle. The catastrophe waiting to happen is Rainier which some volcanologists (people who study volcanoes not Star Trek cultures) say is way overdue.
[7] The diversity and mailability of books optimized the business for internet shopping and this is one area of my life where I prefer efficiency and affordability to human contact.
[8] I have mixed feelings about old-school restaurants. It is indisputably fun to go to a place that has been part of its city for generations. But I worked at a legacy restaurant in high school and they had simply been surpassed by more innovative establishments. It got that feeling a little bit about the Oyster Bar.
[9] This is exactly what it sounds like, a maple bar with a strip of bacon…and it is exactly as good as it sounds like.
[10] (that they cleverly call Captain, My Captain)
[11] Apparently, they had peopto bismal doughnuts for a brief period until the health department shut that down.
[12] This is how they abbreviate their business…not to be confused with the recent, surprisingly watchable alien show that borrows heavily from Battlestar Galactica (I’ll have more to say about that in my next fragments post). I can’t imagine why they don’t want to go with the natural abbreviation for their business (VD).
[13] I ended up encountering a professional soccer match on the way home. I had to choose between it and watching game 7 of Celtics-Lakers. It was a tough call…but I had gotten sucked into the Boston-LA narrative.
[14] Insight into the both the frequency and magnitude of the Hood’s awakenings.
[15] The Missoula flood is one of the great glacial paleo-floods of the Northwest. The story goes that as the glaciers melted, great lakes formed behind ice dams that periodically collapsed, releasing the biggest floods in history, the results of which can still be observed throughout the region.
[16] A Portland band.

1 comment:

Bronwyn said...

Stanford 1 - Bill Bryson 0

seriously, one of the most entertaining and interesting travelogues I've read... you make me want to find a deal ticket on south west just so that I can admire the cascades from the window. And I think I could convince my husband to join me purely on the draw card of core samples at the tube station...